Posts Tagged high school to college

New Chapter, New Lesson – When the First One Leaves

My wife and I left our first child at college this weekend. We’re not alone – thousands of parents will do the same thing in the coming months, and millions more have done it before us – but it feels like we’re alone. It especially felt like that on the eight-hour drive back.

Eighteen and a half years ago, we brought a newborn home from the hospital. We felt alone then too. Though we had months to prepare, it was like we were called to the stage to deliver an important speech, and we had nothing to say. Diapers, bottles, teething – sometimes my wife and I would look at each other with helpless stares, hoping the other had a magic solution. It was too chaotic to ponder the future back then. Our biggest goal was a good night’s sleep.

As the days and years passed, we enjoyed guiding this little brown-haired boy toward his destiny – whatever that was. We were still young and trying to find our own destinies, but we had so much hope for his. Like all parents, we wanted to open up his world, and to help him find and develop his strengths. We weren’t trained for this stage any better than we were trained for the sleepless nights, but we learned on the job and made many mistakes along the way.

There were days when our home was closer to a bad MTV reality show than The Waltons or some other idyllic family-based drama, but those days were few and far between. We emphasized love and appreciation for each other, and you can kill a lot of demons that way. We just had to remember love and appreciation when frustration and anger became overwhelming. Again, most days, we were successful. Even if we lost a day, we were usually able to recover the next.

As he found his path, we slowly circled behind him and started pushing more than pulling him along that path. Eventually, pushing turned into gentle prodding, and before long, we hardly needed to do that any more. He knew where he was going and had a general idea of how to get there. That’s when bittersweet reality set in – we had worked ourselves out of our most cherished and rewarding job. I wasn’t ready to turn in my keys on that job, but I had no choice. It was time to go.

As Laramie faded in my rearview mirror, I thought about that trip home with a newborn back in 1998. None of us slept a wink that night, and we felt completely incompetent as parents. I wasn’t sure if I could do 18 days back then, let alone 18 years. We’ve come a long way since then, but now, just as I start to feel like I have a pretty good grip on parenthood, I must learn something new.

I have to learn to parent at a distance and only when needed. I have to learn to focus on the tremendous opportunities and bright future that I believe lies ahead for him, rather than the loneliness of the empty spot at the dinner table. I have to learn to stifle my urge to pry and prod, and instead rely on my faith that God is watching over him and that he’s prepared for life’s challenges.

None of this feels natural now, just like it didn’t feel natural to hold a screaming newborn 18 years ago, but I learned how to adapt then, and I’ll do the same now.

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When It’s Over, Coping Strategies for a Senior Parent

runningontothefield

My son walked off his high school’s home football field for the last time on Friday. Like 15 of the 16 playoff teams, his team ended their season in defeat. The fact that they were among the final four was little consolation that night, as the seniors shed their Gretna green for the last time.

Years ago, I’d bring him to the high school games at that stadium. He’d sit in the middle school section while my wife, daughter and I sat on the other side of the press box. Like clockwork, he’d show up at our seats at halftime, looking for concession stand money. After the game, he and I would talk about what we saw and about how neat it was going to be to play on that field with his friends in a few years. Those years went quickly.

He started in the first varsity game of his sophomore year and every game since. During the final games of his sophomore and junior seasons, I looked over at the senior parents and tried to imagine what they were feeling. In both cases, we suffered losses in the state quarter-final playoff games. There was no next game or even next year for them. It was over. Selfishly, I was thankful that there was another year for us.

For the past two weeks, I watched seniors on our opponents’ teams play their last down of high school football. For most, it will be the last down ever as a football player. For them, it’s over. If we had lost either game, it would have been over for us too.

When it’s over, it’s hard not to look back with regret, but regret doesn’t get us anywhere. When it’s over, it’s hard not to wish that it wasn’t over, but it’s pointless to wish away an inevitable ending. The end is going to come in almost everything.

These are realities that I will face several times in the next few months, as my oldest child moves through his senior year of high school, and then again in two years, when my youngest does the same.

To help me cope, this is the strategy I’m trying to use:

  1. It’s not about me. I’m a nostalgic guy, and because of that, my perspective is often skewed. Nostalgic people tend to get distracted by their own thoughts, and I’m no different. While my nostalgia is irrepressible, it’s also tied to my child’s experience. As much as possible, I have to let my child’s emotions guide my approach, and remind myself that I’m just support.
  2. Gratitude. A tremendously positive experience is the entire reason that there is sadness when it’s over. If we didn’t enjoy the ride so much, it wouldn’t hurt so much when it grinds to a stop. Instead of the sadness of an ending, I try to remember the positives and be thankful. Pictures, memories and spending time with other parents help with this. Don’t let the screeching of the brakes ruin the thrill of riding a rollercoaster.
  3. The end is part of a transition process. The end is also the start of something new. College doesn’t start until high school ends. A career doesn’t start until college ends. You can’t progress to the next stage until you draw the curtain on the previous stage.

I was mostly successful with these strategies on Friday night, but it wasn’t easy. I had to consciously steer my thoughts away from sadness and regret, and break from my typical post-game routine.

Normally, I rush to the parking lot as soon as the game ends. Not this time. As the final seconds ticked off the clock and the seniors consoled each other under the bright lights, I stood up from the seat I had occupied for three seasons and took a few minutes to burn a picture in my memory. I should have done it earlier, but I was finally able to fully appreciate the moment, right before it was over.

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